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Look Back In Tranquillity

I'm retired now, but in the days when I was a real person I spent almost twenty five years as a teacher. I like to think that in some ways teaching is a sacred calling – in theory at least, the teacher can have a hugely significant effect on the lives of the people listening to him burble. Which means you really do need to burble responsibly. Most of the time.

I've been very lucky in my educational life. When I was at school I had two truly inspirational teachers, so I do have some sort of a handle on how these things work.

Mr Ludlum taught me mathematics. He's the only maths teacher I ever had who was able to make me understand, appreciate and make significant use of the beauty and elegance that underpins the mathematical world. His passion for the subject, and his constant search for ways of explaining that passion raised my performance as a mathematician from the barely adequate to the really quite good, and it is entirely due to him that I managed to take and pass three quite advanced maths exams in my GCE years. They were, if I recall correctly, Mathematics, Special Mathematics and Advanced Mathematics. I don't think I could get anywhere near a passing mark on any of those exams today – but between the ages of 14 and 18, when I was studying this stuff quite intensively, I knew a lot more than I know now.

Perhaps an example will help to put this in context. There's an excellent science fiction novel called The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle in which the eponymous cloud is discovered flying through interstellar space on a course that will take it close to the Earth. There is some speculation about what the cloud is and why it is heading so directly for us, and the ramifications of those speculations make up the plot of a very thoughtful and entertaining book. At one point a group of astronomers try to make an estimate of just how fast the cloud is moving so as to be able to predict when it will arrive. Calculations are scribbled on the traditional blackboard and a conclusion is reached. In a footnote (so as not to interrupt the flow of the story) we are given the complete mathematical justification for the result. The proof involves a rather elegant application of the differential calculus and, in order to obtain some actual figures to plug into the final equation, an approximation by finite intervals.

I first read this novel at about the age of 14 and the mathematical proof was complete gibberish to me. I re-read the book about five years later and I vividly remember thinking, as I read the proof, “Gosh, that's clever. And it's so simple as well!” The level of understanding that I was able to bring to bear on this example of deductive reasoning is directly due to Mr Ludlum's teaching.

Just today I went back to the book and re-read that proof so as to see how well my understanding had survived the test of time. I won't say the proof has returned to complete gibberish again because it hasn't – but now I only vaguely understand it, and I certainly couldn't reproduce it if asked to in an exam. Unused skills tend to atrophy. What a shame.

The other inspirational teacher in my life was Mr Tennant, who taught me English Language and English Literature – in other words, grammar and books. Yes, in those dim and distant days English Grammar was a formal course of study in its own right. Most people found it dull, and I suspect that even Mr Tennant might have found it dull, but nevertheless somehow he managed to enliven the subject to the extent that I consistently got extraordinarily high marks in the grammar exams. But it was in the teaching of literature that Mr Tennant really shone.

His doctorate was on the novels of Sir Walter Scott. I found this more than a little surprising since to me Scott's novels are among the most boring books ever written. But Mr Tennant was an enthusiast and eventually I did manage to find some small shreds of merit in Ivanhoe...

Mr Tennant was a traditionalist who was highly suspicious of twentieth century literature – he felt that it was too new and the verdict of history was not yet in. Maybe it needed another couple of hundred years or so to mature. Perhaps that was the reason why we studied Dickens for our GCE exams. However despite Mr Tennant's lack of sympathy with twentieth century artistic movements, he did play clarinet in a trad jazz band, so obviously the century wasn't all bad.

I didn't always agree with Mr Tennant's opinions. Where he was content to regard Shakespeare as the only playwright worthy of study, I was much happier with John Osborne and Harold Pinter. We had long discussions about it. These days I'm inclining more towards his point of view – I find Osborne and Pinter shallow where once I thought them profound. Maybe the test of time really is an important one.

We agreed on poetry though. Neither of us had much time for the moderns and though I read Eliot and dipped into Pound, I never really felt comfortable with either of them. And Auden was just incomprehensible. Both of us enjoyed Betjeman, though we agreed that he certainly wasn't a major poet. I suspect that if either of us had known about Philip Larkin we'd have both enjoyed the sardonic humour of his insights as well. But it was long after I left school that I finally discovered Larkin and when I did, I rather regretted no longer being able to discuss him with my favourite English teacher. But in class, we stuck with Browning and Tennyson. They seemed safe (and safely dead).

Mr Tennant always encouraged me to write and he was always kind to my juvenilia. He encouraged me to find my own voice in my prose and to stop imitating the style of whatever novelist it was that I was reading this week. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant by that remark, but strangely he did always seem to know exactly what books I'd recently got out the library. Personally I just assumed that he did it by using the super powers that he got when he was bitten by a radioactive schoolboy,...

Mr Tennant awakened a life-long love of literature in me. He taught me to understand the internal construction of the sentences that are themselves the building blocks of literature. He taught me rhetoric and dramatic structure, and how to recognise an iambic pentameter when I tripped over it in the dark on my way to the toilet. He convinced me that there can be many different ideas hiding inside the words of even the simplest of sentences. I don't think a day goes past when I don't use something that he taught me and sometimes I still hear his dry, sarcastic voice inside my head. Usually he's saying, “See? I told you you'd find that useful one day!”

It is clear that truly inspirational teachers have had a profound effect on my life. So now, after nearly quarter of a century of teaching, I start to wonder whether or not I have had a similarly profound effect on any of my students. Well, I do know of a couple of students that I have inspired, and I have indirect, second-hand evidence that there have been others. Mind you, the reverse is also true – twice after introducing myself to the class on Monday morning, I've had students say to me, “Oh! You must be the Alan Robson that [so and so] says such horrible things about!”

Perhaps each of these cancels the others...

Nevertheless the positive examples still stand out. I have a good friend who I don't see nearly enough of these days because we live in different cities. He trained as a librarian, though now he works with computers, mad impetuous fool that he is. He came on one of my courses many years ago and as I recall, we both enjoyed the experience. Recently he was passing through Wellington, so he called round to say hello and during the general chit-chat, he mused about the course that he'd attended lo! These many years ago.

“You know,” he said, “what you taught me about networking in general and TCP/IP in particular was just fantastic. It clarified so many things. Stuff I'd been doing without really knowing why I did it suddenly started to make sense and I've been applying that knowledge almost every day ever since. It's solved so many problems for me and it's got me out of so many holes. I don't know what I'd have done without it.”

I got a warm glow inside. “Have another beer,” I said.

I always enjoy having a friend come on a course, and it's good to think that I've had a positive effect on their career. Mind you, another friend who attended one of my courses is currently in prison, serving a life sentence for murder...

Teaching is an opportunity to give something back to the world. This was brought home to me very strongly once when, quite out of the blue, I got a phone call from one of the Powers That Be. “Alan,” said the voice, “we've had an enquiry about Red Hat Linux training from a seventeen year old. He wants to take the certification exams, but I'm a bit dubious. How can he possibly have the necessary experience when he's so young?”

“Let me talk to him and I'll get back to you,” I said. “What's his phone number?”

I rang him up and we had a long friendly chat. He was extraordinarily knowledgeable and very mature. If I hadn't already known he was seventeen, I'd have assumed he was at least twice that age just on the basis of our phone conversation. Having been a precocious kid myself, I knew exactly how he must be feeling and naturally I was on his side. His physical age was, I felt, a complete irrelevance.

“He needs to come on the course,” I said to the Powers That Be.

“But he's only seventeen...”

“It doesn't matter,” I said. “Trust me, he already knows more than most students who come on these courses. He just needs a little bit of a spit and polish to put what he knows on a more formal basis and fill in some of the gaps. He'll sail through the exams.”


The Powers That Be remained uncertain, but they reluctantly went along with my insistent advice and the course was booked. The student flew up from Christchurch with his parents. He had a week of hard work in front of him and they had a week of shopping! Being only seventeen, he had no money and so his parents were paying the hideously expensive course and exam fees for him. They were happy to do so because, being supportive parents, they wanted to give him every opportunity to get a good start in the career that he so obviously loved. But naturally they were anxious for him, and we had long, private conversations about his progress when he wasn't around.

He found the course hard, but enjoyable. He soaked up information like a sponge and he passed his exams with flying colours. He was thrilled and so was I.

But best of all was the email I got from his parents thanking me for believing in him, and for working so hard with him. That was just wonderful.

After he passed his exams, he applied for (and got) a job as a programmer with Red Hat in America. He used me as a referee. His career was off to a stellar start. To this day, I am fiercely proud of him, and quietly pleased that I gave him his opportunity.

That's the kind of thing that makes teaching worthwhile.

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